The summer and winter seasons call for very different styles of training, with winter being the ‘off-season’ for most endurance athletes. Read on to find out why strength training is such an important part of winter training, with tips and advice from professional athlete Claire Steels. Claire is a World Champion Duathlete who now competes in cycling at the Women’s World Tour level as well as working as a strength coach for her own fitness company.
Why is strength training important?
There have been countless studies on the importance of strength training. One study published in the National Library of Medicine states that benefits of resistance training include: improved physical performance, movement control, speed, functional independence, cognitive abilities, and self-esteem. When it comes to strength training for endurance athletes, Claire explains: “Strength training provides both a physical and mental break from the repetitive nature of swimming, cycling, and running. This allows you to improve performance with reduced risk of injury through repetitive movements or potential overuse injuries.”
Strength training allows you to work on the muscles used in your main sport in a different way, developing muscular strength in turn leading to a higher power output and more efficient technique. Specific and focused strength training also provides the opportunity to isolate certain movement patterns and identify areas of weakness. Claire explains, “We can focus on weaknesses in an isolated manner, before integrating them into bigger movement patterns and finally into our sport specific movements. On a neuromuscular level, it allows us to focus on how our body feels and what different movements feel like. Any opportunity to connect the mind and the body in movement is a positive thing for an athlete.”
Why do strength training in winter?
For swimmers, cyclists, runners, and triathletes, summer is prime race season. From April to September you will be reaping the rewards of tough winter training blocks and enjoying your new-found speed and power. Winter is the time to sow the seeds of performance and work on anything that needs improvement. It is also the best time for strength training as conditions are less than ideal for training outdoors and you won’t have many, if any, races to prepare for.
Claire says, “Winter is a great time to focus on strength training as it is unlikely that you are in the performance phase of your sport. This means that you can accumulate fatigue and deal with any muscle soreness without it having a huge impact on performance. This allows you to focus on the training and building phase of your sport.”
The majority (but not all) of winter sport-specific training (running, swimming, cycling) will be done at a lower intensity and a higher volume. Winter is the time to build your engine rather than adding speed, so any tiredness or soreness from strength training will not have an impact on your specific training sessions.
How often should you do strength training?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to winter strength training. Claire advises, “You already have a pretty heavy training schedule and even two additional sessions per week can be a lot to fit in. Keep the sessions short and try to do them at home to give yourself more time and flexibility. 2 x 30-minuten strength sessions per week is enough to start noticing the benefits.”
What are the best strength exercises for endurance athletes?
You don’t need to spend hours in the gym for your winter strength training. It’s best to find a handful of effective exercises that you enjoy doing which will benefit your sport the most. Claire suggests some of her favourite strength exercises: “I love the Turkish Get Up. It can be done with bodyweight or additional resistance and is a great full body exercise that challenges not only strength but balance, coordination, mobility and proprioception; all vital components of an athlete's skill set.”
Claire also says, “You can't go wrong with squats in my opinion. Building leg and glute strength as well as focusing on posture, range of movement, and core strength, are all needed to offer support to the primary working muscles. The Walking Lunge is my next recommended exercise. Dynamic and sport-specific, this exercise also has the benefit of working the legs unilaterally, building single-leg strength at the same time as promoting stability, balance and core control.”
Strength training at home for endurance athletes
If you find that you much prefer hitting the road on your bike, swimming laps in the pool, or running in the fresh air than working out in a gym, you’re not alone. Many endurance athletes prefer to train their primary sports and don’t enjoy gym workouts as much. If you struggle to find time to do strength training at the gym, there are plenty of exercises you can do at home without the need for any equipment.
Below, Claire explains her 3 go-to exercises that you can do using just your bodyweight.
The bodyweight squat
This is a great exercise to do at home, simple and effective. Think about the movement, think about how it feels throughout your body. You can slow the movement down to increase the time under tension to simulate a bit more of a strength adaptation.
Bodyweight step ups
These offer the ability to develop unilateral strength. You can use something as simple as a kitchen chair or another household item that is roughly knee height.
Place one foot on the chair, making sure the whole of the foot is stable. You have a couple of options here, you can rock your body weight forward onto the ball of the foot and then step up - this puts more emphasis and load on the front leg, with a specific strength focus. Alternatively, you can use both legs to power yourself up in a more explosive movement. Then control the movement back down. You can do all of your reps on one leg and then swap sides, or do alternate legs.
Alternate side plank
This is a winning move for me. Often underrated, the side plank allows us to work on core, glute and shoulder strength as well as drawing our focus to our posture.
Lying on your side, take your weight on your elbow, making sure that your elbow is directly underneath your shoulder. Your body should be straight and then either take your weight on the side of your knee, or on the side of your foot, depending on the option that you have decided to do. Here I would like to point out that it is much better to opt for the easier option and do the exercise correctly, than rush to make it more challenging and do it incorrectly.
From here, roll your chest towards the floor and place your other elbow on the floor, continue to roll over so that you are in a side plank position on the other arm and other side of your knee or foot. Try to engage your core so that your hips and shoulders move at the same speed and time, keeping your torso solid and controlled as you alternate from one side to the other.
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.